Smarter, the new book from science journalist Dan Hurley, is an expansion of his 2012 New York Times Magazine series of articles on the revolutionary new research into the field of intelligence. For many years the orthodox view maintained that human intelligence, whatever that was, was much too complex and too dependent on innate characteristics to be developed by training. Each individual, it was assumed, was limited by their IQ, which was deterministic. Individual circumstances might prevent them from reaching their limit, but there was nothing that could move them beyond.
In 2008, however, there appeared some controversial new research which challenged the orthodox view. An article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by two Swiss investigators, Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, reported on their experiment dealing with the effect of playing a computer game called the N-back on their student subject’s intelligence. What they discovered was a significant increase in the student’s “fluid intelligence.” Fluid intelligence is “the underlying ability to learn” as distinct from “crystallized intelligence” which is the individual’s basic store of information. In effect what the results of their experiment seemed to demonstrate was that in fact intelligence could be affected by training.
As with any new idea there were those who jumped on the bandwagon, and there were the doubters. Smarter is Hurley’s attempt to sort out some sort of truth from all the controversy. He talks to most all of the major players; he looks at the research, and he explains it all in a lively, readable account which examines both the theories and its various practical applications.
If, indeed, intelligence can be improved, there have been a number of suggestions for how to go about it. Not only has a brain training industry, with companies like Lumosity, arisen, but there are those who point to the positive effects of physical fitness, diet, meditation, nicotine and even learning to play a musical instrument. Will eating blueberries make you smarter? Fish oils? What is the effect of nicotine? What will exercise do for your intelligence?
Hurley takes it upon himself to test the theories. First he tests his intelligence by taking the test for Mensa. Then he joins a neighbor’s physical fitness group. He begins applying a nicotine patch. He buys a lute and takes weekly lessons. He subscribes to Lumosity, and works at an N-back program. He tries meditation. Then he retakes the test. Whether all of his effort paid off in increased intelligence depends on your interpretation of the results, but as Hurley concludes in the book’s final sentence: “I feel smarter.”